Reviewing: Making Love with the Land by Joshua Whitehead
Before I share my impressions of Joshua Whitehead’s new essay collection, Making Love with the Land, it is important to acknowledge the violence inherent in any attempt by a European settler to assess or evaluate an indigenous person’s creative work—perhaps especially a work of personal storytelling. While my intention in reviewing books is primarily to share my experiences as a reader, to bring you into what is a fairly solitary activity and perhaps to provide you with a little more information about the book from my particular lens as you decide whether it might appeal to you, there is always some degree of judgement implied. The narrative voice of the book reviewer suggests authority, whether or not it is intended, and while this may be categorized as a simple “microaggression,” it is one of the many small acts that make up an ongoing genocide.
It thus feels important to clarify that I offer a review of this book with the intent of sharing my own experience of reading it, while also holding the awareness that I am a white person living as a settler on stolen land, one of the millions of people co-perpetrating an ongoing genocide as we continue to occupy Turtle Island, and as such I am incapable of fully understanding Whitehead’s experiences. So much of this book is an expression of pain that I am not meant to grasp, written in a language that is not meant to reach me.
As Whitehead describes, there is a kind of violent voyeurism that the colonizer-reader always risks enacting through reading published Native stories, forced as they are into colonizing expectations of genre and category. In this book he writes of decolonizing genre and form, and I intend to show solidarity with that effort through taking the writing on its own terms, considering my impressions in many ways irrelevant. And yet, I share them here in the hopes that if you would not otherwise find this book, your interest may be piqued.
It is impossible for me to speculate on the value of such a raw, unapologetic accounting of personal truths for the Native reader, and especially for those who speak the Cree language or share other cultural context with Whitehead, an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit Indigiqueer author. What I can certainly appreciate, though, is the beauty of the language and the importance of Whitehead’s intersectional perspective. Beyond a sort of intellectual acknowledgement of this importance, I was struck by how Whitehead’s visceral use of language forces the reader to reckon with our own embodiment, pain, and isolation. At the same time, his words are deeply imbued with love, relationality, and a desire for repair and for connection to land, lineage, and other humans. The pain expressed so clearly here comes from a deeply passionate heart and a desire for rebirth in the midst of unfathomable destruction.
As a non-binary queer autistic person, I am a lover of language and also find myself constantly caught in its web, unable to express myself fully through spoken or written language and perhaps especially through the English language, insufficient as it is at times to convey realities beyond colonizing and capitalism. Whitehead’s words find the space between binaries through deliberately breaking some of the conventions of language and form in order to decolonize them, grasping for possibility through a deft creative deployment of the written word. “Normal will have to be redefined,” he writes. “[G]rammar, that slick tool, that scaffold, will have to die and lilt into a new language.”
Whitehead resists the expectation of translation and scatters Cree words throughout the English text, at times without comment and at other times diving into the etymology and how use of the Cree language informs his worldview and that of his kin. And his words are often heart-wrenchingly beautiful and carry a somatic sense, for example: “Look at the tree of me and tell me there isn’t already a forest grasping for oxygen within me.”
Yet, I’m also forced to admit here that I did find portions of the book difficult to read, while simultaneously admiring the wordplay, as I’m a good decade and change removed from academia! Fans of postmodernism, poetics, and literature in general will likely have no trouble, and I’d exhort white literary critics, English professors, and publishers to pay close attention. Other portions of the book are self-referential, pointing to Whitehead’s previously published works, and while I’ve intended to read full-metal indigiqueer for a while now, I have not actually done so, and so I might have been more able to appreciate the commentary from the author on his own work with this context.
While the portions of essays directed at these previous works, as well as those concerned with the exploration of literature and language itself, were thus at times difficult for me to digest, the writing on embodiment, queer relationships, and the land hit much closer to home. I also love the way use of the Cree vernacular makes space for communication of concepts I understand in my heart, without having words in my own tongue for them. I’d recommend that those unfamiliar with the Cree language consider reading this book digitally, for ease of the tap-to-search function on these words. As you go, you’ll start to establish a working vocabulary, and the time spent to do so is certainly worth it (and, I think, integral to understanding the work).
Whitehead writes at length on his own pain both in the sense of physical embodiment and in the sense of ancestral / collective trauma in the face of colonization and planetary destruction. Stories of grief and loss and suicidal ideation wind with descriptions of the abject and visceral, with musings on how insomnia informs the author’s work, with the traumas of disordered eating and body shaming. Whitehead adds a layer of meaning to these experiences as he describes himself as one who eats pain, metabolizing it through his own body as the land does through hers.
“That’s when I know that I am not the only one eating, that I am not singular in this widespread shared intimacy, that as I eat, so too does the land—that as I chew death, askîy spews life, askîy asahkêskiw. I am never alone in this momentous feasting. The land is eating pain too.” He further connects this act of digestion to storytelling, to human intimacy: “You can’t eat pain without also eating memory, and you can’t eat memory without eating story; to eat the self is to eat community is to eat those very ones you shield from the world.” In my own cultural context, I am struck by the kneejerk tendency to avoid the most triggering physical descriptions, to shy away from the rawness of language that brings me back to my own experiences of disordered eating, and made an effort to stay present in the language here as a practice of intimacy. White folks are so often taught to avoid discomfort, but being uncomfortable is a crucial and inseparable part of human relationship.
And of course this theme of pain also weaves into the context of the pandemic, into death and grief and the “slow, necrotic wilting of touch.” I needed this affirmation right now, given my own context of extreme lockdown, questioning whether it will ever end, but also acknowledging that interdependence was both a desire and something lacking for me far earlier than March 2020. “How insidiously genocidal, I ought to think, to be living within an unfolding of bio-organic death within a history of continual pandemics. What means lonely, what means isolation, when one has continually been deterred in this modality of being?” Whitehead also considers queer experiences with risk and how they affect our experience of the pandemic, asking “what does risk mean, when we risk ourselves too, in this isolation?”
While the depth of Whitehead’s pain dominates my impression of the collection, like many BIPOC writing of apocalypse Whitehead also grapples with possibility and futurity, particularly from an Indigiqueer perspective. He describes the intimacy of stolen moments with a lover during a pandemic visit, as well as the refusal to be categorized in the process of a relationship transition—something I expect many queer readers will find achingly relatable. Much of Whitehead’s writing on queerness in this volume engages with a sex-driven racist gay male bar culture I was futilely hoping might be on the way out by now, including an account of an assault, but these more hopeful stories remind the reader of queer resilience even in the midst of utter destruction.
I found it important, also, that this collection explores relationship in a number of ways, all of which could be, I think, considered queer. It’s not only about sexuality and romance but also about the magic and play and heartache of relationship with land, with river and sky, with non-human animals, with human kin, with the author’s Native friends and colleagues. This interweaving of relationship seems crucial, and while I am hesitant to oversimplify into a caricature of Native connectedness—the narrative also being full of examples of disconnection and rejection—I did find this approach to be quite different from other queer narratives focusing very heavily on romantic relationship and sexual longing.
Whitehead’s play with language includes the recurrence of an undefined “you,” called out directly early on. At times he addresses a person (whether human, animal, or elemental) by name, but often the subject of the sentence is ambiguous, shifting without guiding the reader into keeping up. There’s a sense of privacy retained, in a work that directly grapples with the voyeurism of the colonizer-reader, but also a sense that “you” may in fact contain many possibilities at once.
In one particularly powerful passage, for example, Whitehead replaces all instances of “I” and “you” with Cree equivalents, written in Cree syllabics, which both has a particular visual impact and an altered sense of meaning. Many other words in this passage are also written in Cree, with an English parenthetical offered in the first instance, so that by the time you reach the end of the essay you can recognize a good ten or so words. (This approach contrasting with most of the other essays, where Cree words are written in the English alphabet but left to the reader to look up.)
What this emphasis on pronoun brought up for me was a reminder of the beauty and complexity of relation, but also a reminder that pronoun considerations (even queer pronoun considerations) aren’t only about the third person. What do we presume about “you” in a work of non-fiction? Is the “you” queer? A person of color? A Native person? Is “you” the reader, or an unnamed figure in the author’s life—perhaps a grandmother, a child, a lover, a spirit? What intimacies might be shared with a particular “you,” but not a general audience? What intimacies do we presume access to, or even a right to, by virtue of seeing ourselves as the intended recipient of an author’s words, by virtue of the fact of publication? Even beyond this specific work, the questions this emphasis raises have considerable applicability in a world where so many of us broadcast our opinions and our pain online to an unknown, unnamed, uncertain and always shifting audience without the benefit of relationship and established trust.
And yet there is also hope contained within this ambiguity of “you,” the possibility of intimacy if we open our eyes and circle back to the truth of relation, of care, of kin. “I speak here of a wish for radical change and rhizomes of care—out of a sense of global care but also, for once, out of selfishness too. I think the world of this pronoun ‘you’—so here I’ll build a world from a pronoun, and balloon it into wishes. I place a kiss into the wind in the hope it finds you when you need love.” I felt this passage in my bones.
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